A real World War

As the date approaches for the publication of The Soldier’s Wife, I’ve been talking about it – sometimes officially, in interviews, and sometimes informally, with people that I meet (yes, including some shameless self-promotion).

What has struck me in these conversations or the comments I get online is how many families still have connections back to World War I, as this story shows.

Grandparents, great-grandparents of Anglo-Celtic Australians; yes, so much you might expect. The Anglo people talk about having had family at Gallipolli, the Somme, at Ypres… whether it’s Australian or British ancestors, most people from English-speaking background will have some family connection. This is even truer in England, where I visited recently, because the UK had conscription in WWI, while Australia did not.

But it’s not only the Anglo-Celtic people I speak to who have those connections. I’ve spoken to descendants of Turkish soldiers who perhaps shot at my grandfather in Gallipolli. I’ve spoken to people of Italian descent (Italy was on the Allied side in WWI) whose grandfathers fought on their own front, Egyptian-born Australians whose family supplied food to the Australian camps and hospitals, Greek-born Australians whose grandmothers washed linen at the hospital on Lemnos…

Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-breaking. Quite often they start with ‘My family came out to Australia after the war…’ It was a big shaking up, that war. It showed ordinary people what the other side of the world looked like. Travel seemed less impossible to the poor than it had in the past. Horizons were bigger; foreigners less foreign. Returning soldiers talked, if they talked at all, of the places they’d been and the fun they’d had – because returning soldiers lied, or skipped over the truth, about the horror they’d seen, just as they had in their letters while the war was running.

And during the years they were away, their families had maps up on the wall in the kitchen or the parlour, with pins stuck into the places their loved one had been or might be. They followed the news about battles and retreats and advances, and plotted them on the family atlas.

Or they joined the Red Cross and knitted scarves and socks and mittens, and thought in detail about the climate of places they had barely known existed before the war, just so they could use the right weight of wool, and put extra thickness in the toe of the socks.

Before WWI, people had lived very insular lives, unless they were traders or sailors or diplomats. Afterwards, although they may have returned to their home towns, or welcomed their soldier boys back home, they had a different world view. In simple terms, they knew more about the world than they had. In complex terms, they had left parts of their hearts and minds ‘Over There’, and the more adventurous left home and family behind for more exploration and adventure. And many of those chose to come to a place which seemed as though it hadn’t been touched by war. Those with memories of freezing in the fields of France sought out the sunshine of the Antipodes, and the sense of freedom which came with it.

Our connections to WWI reach a very long way, and I suspect modern Australia would look very different if it hadn’t happened.

Follow Pamela on Twitter at @pamelahartbooks.

Letters from the front

In World War I the British authorities wouldn’t let enlisted men write proper letters from the battlefield, lest the truth dishearten the people back on the home front. The men were given postcards which said,

Dear ___

I am well.
I am wounded.
I am sick.



The men were supposed to cross out the ones which did not apply. Imagine being a wife or mother or father or friend who received one of these postcards – especially since, quite often, the men only had pencils to fill them out with, so the words showed through the crossing out. Imagine reading ‘I am well,’ with the ghosts of other possibilities there… wounded, sick… and the unwritten, unwriteable, the ever present, dead.

The generals misunderstood their men. Those soldiers who did manage to write didn’t tell the truth; they assured their loved ones that they were well, were eating heartily (even if they hadn’t had anything but bully beef from a can for weeks), that they had friends (that was the true part), that they’d be home soon…

And instead of letters, which perhaps would say too much, when they were on leave in France the men sought out other postcards, made by local or refugee women – a ‘home’ industry which sprang up out of nowhere during the war. French and Belgium women in refugee camps embroidered strips of silk, which were then sent to a factory, cut up and inserted into the cards. There was a wide range of designs, with motifs based on the homelands of their customers*.

Have a look:
Australia for ever

Wattle and kangaroo postcard

And from a time when the swastika meant good luck:

swastika Ever true

When I look at these, I think of the women who made them, resilient under terrible conditions, finding a way to support their families amid death and destruction. I think of the men who bought them, wanting to send a symbol of their love in a way which would lift their loved ones’ hearts. And I think of the (mostly) women who received them and the tears and smiles the cards would have provoked.

My grandfather’s name was Arthur, so imagine how I felt when I found this image:

From Arthur

The catalogue says this came from ‘France, 1914-1918’. And I know my grandfather wasn’t in France – he was shipped home from Cairo after being wounded at Gallipoli. But still… there was an Arthur, just like him, a young man thinking about and longing for his girl.

So many stories. Maybe sometime I’ll tell that Arthur’s story…

* The Australian War Memorial has a fine collection of these postcards, which you can find here: https://www.awm.gov.au/findingaids/guide-silk-postcard-collection/

Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will find links to the images of the cards.

How much of history can you make up?

This morning I was listening to Books and Arts Daily – Michael Cathcart was talking to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, a historical novel. They were talking about how Hilary Mantell, the author of Wolf Hall, has been criticised by some historians for giving her characters actual conversations which are not recorded by history.

Obviously Michael Cathcart and his guest agreed that, if you’re going to write a novel, you have to do this. But how much trouble should you go to, to make sure that the history, rather than the conversations, are accurate?

One argument is that you have a responsibility to both reader and historical subject to make it accurate. Certainly, as I was growing up, I gleaned a lot of my history from novels by Jean Plaidy and Mary Renault. This was a responsibility I felt keenly with my first historical novel, The Black Dress. Since the main character was Mary MacKillop, who was not only a major historical figure abut about to become a saint, I was conscious that, for many of my readers, my book was the first thing they might have read about her, and could colour all subsequent attitudes. I felt deeply – well, scared. I researched for 18 months before I dared begin, and then kept researching throughout the five major rewrites I did before I sent it to a publisher. And I had it read by the subject experts – the Sisters of St Joseph.

It was the hardest book I’ve ever written.

But with my next historical novel, The Soldier’s Wife, there was only one real person in it – my grandfather, whose war record I used to map out the career of my main character’s husband – the ‘soldier’ of the title.

I never knew my grandfather, and that gave me some freedom to imagine him based on the stories I had heard.

Other than that, how closely did I have to stick to history?

Pretty damn close. My soldier was an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp); he was wounded at Gallipoli. And the Anzac legend is so revered and alive in Australasia that I again felt a great responsibility to get it right.

I doubt that responsibility will ever go away. I’m not comfortable with playing fast and loose with history in order to have a cleverer story. Better to take what really happened and build the story from there, because it’s all fascinating, and if you pick the right characters, you can build a story which will have all the excitement, interest, tension and emotion you could wish for.

Of course, everything I write is my take on history – my interpretation will be different from someone else’s, inevitably. But the facts can be true. And the ‘feel’ should be as true to your research as you can make it.

Elizabeth Gilbert said to Michael Cathcart, ‘The original contract with art is to delight’, and I couldn’t agree more. To delight with your interpretation of the truth is even better. And if you don’t like my interpretation? Well, that’s the great thing about fiction – you can write your own!